Archives for category: lessons

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The problem is that there is no money in it. We’re struggling to find effective treatments for the various six-legged monsters that attack our fruit trees. We vehemently refuse to consider ‘standard’ agricultural poisons. Left to our devices, and the blessings of the internet, we are making progress. It’s slow, but we’re in no hurry.

Last year we suffered a plague of rose chafers. It wasn’t just us, the entire county was inundated with them. They are an annual problem–but not like that. We used our standard, herb-augmented, insecticidal soap–but they are beetles, and thus, armored. The soap helped, but was not fast enough to prevent them from damaging our trees. Though all the trees were affected, the plums were the worst. I was beside myself–and for weeks, visited the orchard up to five times a day–to hand crush the bastards between my fingers, by the hundreds. All over the county, farmers were alarmed by the onslaught. Most fought back with pesticides as deadly as the bugs themselves. I won’t do that, on principle, and because I keep bees. I know the costs of indiscriminate pesticide application. Bees are insects, too.

From an organic perspective, we do not want to coddle our trees. There’s wisdom in allowing some predation. The trees will respond by growing foliage that is less delicious, even bitter–at least from a bug’s perspective. And that change carries forward, year to year. Most of our trees are young, and too delicious for their own good. Modern fruit has been bred to be sweet. It’s its attraction and it’s Achille’s heel. Last year, two plum trees were completely skeletonized–defoliated. Though they did leaf out again after rose chafer season–it’s not a performance they can repeat year after year. So, we were curious, after last year, to see how the trees would respond this season to the annual rose chafer offensive.

This year, we are armed. If things get too bad, we have purchased the tree netting, which is the ultimate in protection. And we’re refining our organic spray options. But first, we are trying to be observant, to learn from the bugs and the trees.

The infestation is not as intense as last year. We have no insight into that–it’s a ‘too-many-variables’ situation. Last year was the thing that inspires nightmares and horror movies. This year, not so much. But, I was talking to a clerk at our local farm and garden store–and he was reporting rose chafer levels like we experienced last year. He had that overwhelmed tone to his voice. He reported that his wife wouldn’t even go outside. Perhaps our trees are not so delicious as before? Also, though the plums are still the favorite victims, this year the rose chafers are also going after the apples, and even the pears. Are the plums learning to defend themselves?

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In my research, I seen suggestions that intense garlic applications may make a difference. The theory is that the sulfurous elements in the garlic are absorbed by the leaves, and after a couple of days, become a systemic–discouraging the fine palates of our insect predators. Although I’d already done my pre-season mint and light garlic spray, once the rose chafers arrived I decided to give intense garlic a go. It’s working. That doesn’t mean that the pests are gone–but, since the spray three days ago, the levels have dropped to about a quarter of what we were seeing before. Of course, I have no way of knowing if weather, or seasonal variations, or even astrological influences are a factor. We are only one small orchard–with no control group. But, anecdotally, it’s working. We may try one more application in a week or so–if the numbers go back up.By the first week of July, the season ends and we can breathe a sigh of relief. Given that conventional farmers confronted with such an infestation will spray weekly with really toxic compounds, I’m feeling pretty smug about the garlic. Unfortunately, there’s no economic incentive to research the impact of garlic. There’s no patent…no way to milk money out of the bug-traumatized gardeners.

Next year, we’ll remember to start the intense garlic before the rose chafers arrive, to give the trees advance protection. I’m always perusing the internet for solutions–and I note that there is a product, ‘Garlic Barrier,’ offered to combat beetles. It’s probably much easier to use than my messy process of pulverizing heads upon heads of garlic, filtering it and then mixing it in water and a carrier oil. But my method was a lot less expensive.

We’re also looking at applying beneficial nematodes to the soil in the area. These microscopic warriors seek out underground larvae and eat them from the inside out. It might be of limited use, because, after all, rose chafers can fly. Who knows how far they come to eat our orchard? That plan would be for next year–to minimize their numbers, even before they leave their winter homes. It would also limit other forms of grubs, which can be pests in the garden. Every little bit helps.

Here we are, facing a potential pandemic with our pants down. Over the past two years we have disassembled our domestic epidemic capabilities, at the same time that we dismantled our international assistance for disease control. If this were Star Trek, we’d have lost our warp drive at the same time our shields were down.

But here’s the good news. At this point, we’re looking at an illness that only kills 2 to 3% of it’s victims–maybe less with good medical care. We’ve had the good fortune to have our shortcomings pointed out in a dry-run epidemic. (I do not, in any way, want to undermine the suffering of those afflicted in a serious way.) But, from a national perspective, this is a slap on the wrist for our failure to remain ready for the threat. We can learn from this.

Of course, there are ugly lessons out there. The first round of flu in 1918 was relatively benign–before it mutated into the lethal form. And so, we should keep our eyes open. But the lessons of 1918 should not be lost–keep the public informed. Tell the truth. If you’re going to ask folks to participate in minimizing risks, you need to be honest about what the risks are. So far, we’re not rising to the occasion here. It’s not a good idea to call the pandemic a hoax–while at the same time, congratulating yourself for handling it well–when, in fact, you’ve done nothing. Less than nothing.

We can do better, even without quality leadership. We can educate ourselves about the risks, we can take steps to avoid the spread of illness. We can be ready to self-isolate if necessary. We can assist others if there’s need. Who wouldn’t be willing to drop off some gatorade and a casserole for a neighbor? Flex our community muscles and we may just discover that we actually have a community.

And, we can avoid the ugliness that comes with any epidemic. If infected, self-isolate. If exposed, don’t expose others. You cannot outrun a virus. Exercise that ancient Ring-Around-the-Rosy wisdom and resist the urge to run, and spread, the illness. Wash your hands. Cover your cough. Drink plenty of fluids and get adequate rest. All of us can engage in common-sense self care. And, stick to science.

We didn’t get much done Saturday. We’ve broken ground on the new barn, and we have digging to do. Still, the weather report called for heavy rains–it’s not a great idea to dig on slopes, in our sandy, fragile soils, when a deluge is expected. The air was heavy and the winds unsettling. As the day progressed, the prognosticators backed away from their initial forecasts. Maybe no thunder or lightning. Maybe just a little rain. Too bad, we very much need the rain.

In fact, I think we needed all of it–the rain for our parched fields and forests–and the wild and stormy part, for the release it offers. Everything, these days, feels pent up. Finally, during the night, we woke to rain, enough to slake the parch, but without fanfare. Normally, a soft steady rain would be enough to satisfy.

I once read an anthropological study that revealed that any society could be brought to its knees, through a fundamental challenge to its belief system. Indigenous cultures, defeated by superior technology, never rebounded after crushing defeats. The concept of “decimation” is important, in its original meaning–reduction by a factor of ten–because at that point a society becomes precarious. The same can be true with any fundamental change–loss of faith, environmental collapse, the battles in information technology–really, any breakdown of societal norms. I fear that when coping mechanisms become stretched, both the individual and societal glue begins to fail.

We have always had corruption. We have always suffered bullies and unfairness–be it in the school yard, the workplace or in governance. But we have been buoyed by our belief systems. Whether in a religious sense, or in the self-correction of societal rules, or in adherence to the Rule of Law, we have believed that something larger than ourselves would preserve fairness. Though there may be individual failures, justice itself is supposed to paint with a broad brush. When enough people lose faith in fundamental fairness, they lose the incentive to participate according to the rules. I fully recognize that our systemic protections have not been universally held. Folks at the bottom of the economic heap, minorities, oppressed people have long felt the sting of systemic unfairness and injustice. And there has always been privilege on the other end. But I have had faith that there was an inexorable path to improvement–an evolution of human spirit that would prevail, bringing fairness and prosperity to an ever-widening circle of humanity.

Now, I am not so certain. Sure, one has to expect the inevitable pendulum cycles. And our system is built with checks and balances…hopefully flexible enough to adjust to changing times. But, to be self-correcting, we need a core belief in fundamental principles, in the ideas that society is for the all, and not just for the few. By this I do not mean that we all have to adhere to one path; our strengths have always been in the interplay of our ideas. But we seem to have lost the decency of a belief in a level playing field. I do not see that ideal in our elected representatives. And I don’t see it playing out in popular culture. I am alarmed that bullying, mean-spirited selfishness and winning without regard to the rules seems to have infected our public square. Winner takes all never works in the long run.

There are supposed to be universal truths. Things on which one can rely. Now, not even the weather is assured. Isn’t anyone else alarmed? I saw a satellite photo yesterday that showed current wildfires–it was disconcerting. Fires driven by heat waves in Scandinavia? Fires over wide swaths of our Western lands? Heat domes and polar vortices play havoc with reliable patterns of weather and season. And yet, despite clear indications of human-induced change, people are unwilling to apply fact-based observations of cause and effect to the consequences of their actions. And why would they? If the rules are broken–if cheating becomes the norm–if a reality-based world has become victim to a selfish, slash-and-burn, tackle your way to the top mentality, what is the motivation for playing by the rules? Haven’t we been told that that’s for suckers? If you can’t rely on something as basic as climate, have we found ourselves in a relentless tug-of-war between our immediate interests and those of generations to come? If so, how will we explain to our grandchildren that we chose corruption, SUVs and single-use plastics over the habitability of the planet we leave to them?

Sunday’s gentle rain was good for the garden and the orchard trees. It’s been cool and cloudy since, with the promise of more rain in the air. But I’m not sure if that’s enough. I’m afraid we may really need the storm.

 

 

 

 

Tangents…

A.V. Walters–

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I am trying to return to writing. I have at least two novels to finish, and ideas for several more. Finally, we have moved into our home, and though there’s plenty left to do, our energies are not completely devoted to the building project. Tangents are the problem.

I’m currently working on a Prohibition era tale based, in part, on my grandfather’s rum-running days. I try to be historically accurate–which leads me constantly down the rabbit hole. In the current chapter, Trudy, our protagonist, hands a sheaf of papers outlining liquor distribution channels, to Red, who’s an overly ambitious rumrunner. Those papers, how are they attached to each other, physically?

A quick foray to the internet reveals that, though the stapler had already been invented in ’31, (the novel’s setting) it was still not a common household item. So, it’s not likely that these papers would’ve been stapled together. I suppose they could be folded, or rolled, and tied neatly with grosgrain ribbon, but that seems a bit precious in the context of this exchange. Paper clips. Hmmm, another not-so-quick trip to the internet… Yes, by all means, the paperclip was already in wide use at the time.

But, that lead me to the myth of Norwegian invention. Norwegian, Johan Vaaler, filed paperclip patents in both Germany and the United States in 1901 (Norway had no Patent Office then) for a similar but less workable product than the unpatented Gem paper clips already in common use in England since the 1870s. Vaaler’s patent described a single wire loop–a design that never made it to common usage. Other paperclip patents were filed in the United States, one as early as 1867–but none of these early patents describe the common Gem design still used today. And then there’s the role of the paperclip as a symbol of anti-fascist resistance.

Several countries had identifying pins which became symbols of national pride during the WW2 occupation of Europe, notably: some pins of national flags; a pin showing exiled Norwegian King Haakon VII’s cipher; and the Danish King’s Mark. The Germans made such displays of national unity illegal. In France, a simple paperclip worn on a collar, cuff or lapel, became a symbol of “unity” and resistance. The innocuous paperclip as a symbol of resistance spread across the occupied countries until, predictably, this too became illegal.

Learning this, it only took me a minute to locate a paperclip and to affix it to my jacket collar. It seems to me that we could use a simple unifying symbol for our own resistance to the current racist, fascist and anti-democratic trends in governments, everywhere. At least, we could use it to project our own disavowal for hate, and fear driven policies: We Do Not Agree!

There is a sculpture of a giant paperclip in Sandvika, Norway, celebrating Norwegian ingenuity in the invention. Unfortunately, that sculpture is of a Gem clip–and not Vaaler’s patented version. Sometimes “story” eclipses reality.

Except, of course, at my house, where the tangents of history lead me far from my intent to get on with the story. In this one, at least I’ll have the paperclip right.

 

Long Live the Queen…Part 2

(What Were We Thinking?)

A.V. Walters–

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And, finally home in their hives.

We know better. There is no shortcut to proper procedure.

This pulls together a number of wayward thoughts, please bear with me.

 

Some months ago, one of the leaders of our bee group reported that she had a “hot hive” and had been stung over forty times when she tried to work it. “Forty Times!” I thought, “I’d quit bees in a heartbeat.” Shortly after that, I was visiting Garth, a bee-buddy of mine and I was stung. No big deal, it’s a part of beekeeping. Knowing that I react to stings, Garth grabbed my arm and sprayed it with his homemade “aphid spray.” He’d discovered that it helped to lessen the impact of a bee sting. Surprisingly, it worked—though I still swelled up, the large local reaction was half of what I usually suffer. We debated what the active ingredient might be—was it the mint? (peppermint and spearmint) The dish soap? The garlic oil? Garth wasn’t willing to experiment. After all, when it works, why bother?

Many years ago, my then-husband came up a mysterious rash—related to his new fitness plan of regular swimming. We thought it might be the pool chemicals. He ended up seeing a dermatologist. The doctor was intrigued. He did an “ice cube test” and determined that the problem was a relatively rare condition called cold urticaria. My husband was allergic to the cold, and the rash was simply hives. “Not a problem, then… we surmised. The Doc was quick to correct, “Not if it’s just a few patches, but if you get those raised welts over large swaths, it puts you at risk for heart failure.”

Now, the prospect of heart failure steps things up a notch. The Doc advised to seek immediate medical attention if the rash spread to more than a quarter of a body’s surface. He suggested considering another form of exercise. My husband opted to continue swimming, and over time, the rash abated.

 

Back to our bee story… we were in a hurry to get our two queenless hives re-queened. I drove half-way across the state to collect our new royals, so the first thing the next morning, we were up for the task of installing them. A new queen isn’t just dumped into the waiting hive. She must be kept in a queen cage for several days, so her pheromones can work her magic on the hive. Otherwise, she risks rejection by the colony, and murder. Generally, one makes the effort to install the queen at or near the bottom level of the hive. This is especially true, late in the season, so that the brood and ball of bees will be below the honey storage. That way, during the winter the bees can travel up, through the column of warmth generated by the huddled bees, to their food supply. If they have to travel down, or sideways, they risk “cold starvation.” An entire colony can starve, within inches of their food stores, if it’s too cold to make that short trip.

There were several considerations. We knew the hives were hot. We knew that the installation should be as brief as possible. They’d been pretty well-behaved during the split, so we weren’t too concerned. Because we expected this to be quick, we just wore our bee jackets, instead of fully suiting up. That was our first mistake. To speed up the process, we also decided to lift up all the top boxes at once, so we could place the queen cage directly into the bottom deep box, supposedly minimizing disruption. That was our second mistake.

Together, the top, inner cover and two medium boxes of honey, were a little heavier than we expected. As a result, our entry into the hive was not as measured and smooth as usual. And, perhaps because we were opening directly into the bees’ home (and not just the honey storage) we may have alarmed them…

Nothing in our beekeeping experience could have prepared us for what happened next.

Instantly, the usual background hive hum raised to a fever pitch and bees poured out in a tsunami of bee defense. No warning. No raised abdomens or threatening thunks. It was a full-scale attack. They got me first, covering me with stinging bees. The bee jacket mostly worked—only a few stingers got past its tight weave. But one layer of denim is no defense against determined bees and my jeans were covered with the angry, stinging mob. Even as the words, “We’re in trouble,” left my lips, I heard Rick’s cursing reaction as the bees found his ankles. Somehow, he still managed to shove that queen cage into the maw, before we jammed that hive shut. And then I abandoned him.

From the hips down, every part of me was on fire. When a bee stings, it gives up its life in defense of the hive. It also releases an alarm pheromone that tells other bees, “Sting here!” They did. I was a cloud of alarmed bees. Nothing I could do dissuaded them. I ran. They followed. I tried rolling in the dirt; still, they came. I grabbed the garden hose and sprayed down my legs and the bee cloud around me. It didn’t slow them down at all. (Though the cool water was a bit of relief.) And then I ran again, to get as far away from the hive as I could. Peripherally, I was aware that Rick was in a similar dance. I don’t remember screaming, but he says I was. I distinctly remember his cursing.

Finally free of advancing bees, I started scraping away the bees that were sticking to my jeans and socks. I saw Rick flicking them away with his leather gloves and followed his lead. As soon as we were clear of bees, we ran for the apartment and peeled out of our clothing at the door. Even then, there were some bees stuck to our jeans and bee jackets.

Once inside, near naked, Rick said, “Now what?” There was no time to debate. I’d always thought that Garth’s “active ingredient” was the garlic. It was a gamble, but it was all we had. “Garlic!” I yelled, and Rick started peeling cloves as I ran for the anti-histamines. I pulled out my epi-pen and laid it on the table, just in case.

Rick’s ankles were beginning to balloon. For some reason, that was his most targeted zone. Everything below my hips was mine. The rising welts were beginning to merge—I counted 47 stings on the front of my left thigh, before giving up on the count. It was more important to rub in the garlic. I figure I was stung over a hundred times. Many of those stings were “minor,” such that they did not go deep or leave a stinger—in that, our jeans saved us.

Garlic. We grated it, cloves and cloves of it. And then rubbed it into our tortured skin. It stung a little—but in the wake of what we’d been through, we hardly noticed. I was well aware that one, or both of us, would likely end up in the ER. In the back of my mind, I was remembering the admonition—if over twenty-five percent of a body welts up, it’s time to seek medical attention! For nearly an hour we grated and spread the garlic. The kitchen smelled like an Italian restaurant. If we had to go to the hospital, there was going to be some explaining to do.

Finally, it began to work. The welts began to dissipate.

Then, Rick did the unthinkable. He suited up again to retrieve the second queen (left out in the bee yard) to insert her into the other queenless hive. Granted, he just put her in the top—but at that moment, nothing could have convinced me to go anywhere near the bees. He was the hero of the day.

Not that we weren’t still uncomfortable. The stings continued to itch. For me it took two days for the welts to completely disappear—but normally, on me, a sting can remain inflamed for up to a week. This was a phenomenal recovery.

And the bees recovered, too. Both hives have accepted their new queens and they are merrily back to work, in their orderly bee way. Would I quit beekeeping? Not on your life. We’ve learned a lot.

Mostly, though… Garlic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking the Sting Out of It–

A.V. Walters–

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We keep bees. People respond to that with raised eyebrows—and usually some positive acknowledgement. The raised eyebrows are about the dark side of beekeeping. Most people think of beekeeping in terms of being stung.

Yes, we get stung from time to time. It comes with the territory. Usually, when it happens, you can point to some mistake you made—you moved too quickly, you inadvertently crushed some bees while stacking hive boxes, you didn’t use smoke (or enough smoke, or too much smoke) when performing an invasive activity. There are rules and rhythms that protect you from being stung. Bees only sting when provoked, and often give plenty of warning.

I react to stings, so I take every precaution. I only handle the bees when wearing “the suit.” I listen to the tone of the bees during hive work—you can hear it if their level of alarm amps up. Rick and I agree that it isn’t worth it to work on agitated bees. It’s not good for them, and we’re not happy to be stung out of our own stupidity. We can always close up a hive, and come back to it on another, better day. We plan ahead of time what it is we hope to accomplish, in a hive, and endeavor to do it in the least disruptive way. The hive is their home. They have every right to defend it.

Bees demonstrate stages of annoyance. First, you should take note if the bees are looking at you. I laughed when I first heard that—except that it’s true. Usually, when you work in a hive, the bees go about their business and ignore you. But, if they’re lined up, looking at you, it’s a warning. (It’s funny looking, the first time you notice it—as though they were spectators at a circus and you’re the main attraction!) Then, if they raise their back ends—you’ve crossed another warning threshold. Listen closely to the tone of the bee’s constant hum. In an irritated hive the background hum raises in volume and pitch. Time for more smoke, or to close it up. Guard bees may “thunk” you, that is, fly right into your chest or face—to make impact, but not sting. Again, we’re talking serious, threat-level warnings here. Bees do not want to sting. A stinging bee is a dead bee—they lose their stinger and innards in the process, so it’s a KIA hero’s defense. Move slowly and deliberately. Try not to breath on the bees (certainly don’t blow on them.) Do not wave your arms in a swatting defense. It only makes things worse.

Timing is everything. Happy bees are less likely to rise to alarm. What makes for happy bees? Good weather, ample food and available water. We try not to open the hives in bad weather—the bees are stuck inside and as crabby as school kids denied recess. We do our bee work midday, so most of the bees are out in the fields. And we make our disruptions as short and productive as possible.

There are three physical levels of reaction to stings. A normal reaction includes the initial pain of the sting, some level of swelling and discomfort at the point of sting, usually resolving overnight. The worst reaction is life-threatening anaphylactic shock. If you respond to stings this way, you probably shouldn’t be keeping bees. I don’t have that problem, but I have an Epipen, just in case. I fall into the middle category, what’s called a “large, local reaction.” After the initial sting, the site swells well beyond the actual sting—often a painful raised welt up to eight inches across, that is painful, itchy and lasts up to a week. It makes me a little sick, too. I have to keep taking antihistamines until the swelling starts to abate. Things can get ugly if I am multiply stung.

There’s some good advice about how to handle a sting. First, get away from the hive. A stinging bee releases an alarm pheromone that attaches to the site of the sting. Other bees may zero in on it, and continue in a defensive attack. Rick and I work as a team, but if one of us is stung, the other closes up the hive for the day. Second—waste no time removing the stinger. Even unattached to the bee, the stinger continues to pump venom. Use a dull bladed object to scrape across the site of the sting. Do not use tweezers, as squeezing the whole assembly can result in injecting more venom. After the stinger is removed, you can gently squeeze the sting site to eject any venom still near the surface of the wound. Ice it, as soon as you can. Take an antihistamine—Benadryl or similar, to stave off any excess reaction. I use an herbal antihistamine called Hista Block, that doesn’t make me so drowsy. Depending upon the level of swelling (and discomfort) you can also take an analgesic. Some sources suggest using a topical spray, but others warn of possible cross-reactivity at the wound site, so I don’t. Most importantly, take these steps as quickly as you can. Time is critical in warding off the body’s defense to the venom—our defenses are the biggest problem. Depending upon your level of reaction, you may consider medical intervention if you have multiple stings. Afterwards, make sure you launder the clothing in which you were stung because the pheromone on your clothes can inspire later hostile actions by the bees. (Nobody told them not to respond to the outdated alarm.)

This is how I cope with the sting potential when keeping bees. I have beekeeping friends who do not react as I do, who handle their bees without suiting up, without even wearing gloves or a veil. I envy them. One friend actually welcomes beestings, because he claims they alleviate the arthritis in his hands!

Work smart and bee prepared. That’s my motto.

Of course none of this helped over the weekend when I was rescuing some tiger lilies from a construction site. Really, it wasn’t theft; they’d been bulldozed and would have died but for our valiant efforts to rescue them. Unfortunately for me, the bulldozer had disturbed a nest of Yellow Jackets.

Yellow Jackets are a whole different story, than bees. They are just rude! They sting, without warning—and a single yellow jacket can sting repeatedly! (Which it did, as I ran a quarter of a mile down the road, to escape it.)

Days later, I’m just recovering. The good news is that we got the tiger lilies planted, so there’s some reward for my experience.

 

 

 

 

Arts and Crafts

A.V. Walters

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When I refurbish a piece of furniture, I have a couple of rules. This is not to say that my way is universal, or that I pretend to be some fancy, high-end professional restorer. But, I do try to maintain the integrity of the piece. My rules, in short, try to restore the piece to its original condition, respecting the aesthetic of the time; when possible (in keeping with the first rule) try to reveal the beauty of the wood (or other materials); and maintain, or return the piece to its original functionality. It’s not enough to be cool-looking and old; I want it to be useful, too.

There are exceptions—just as our aesthetics are shaped by our experiences, sometimes we make substitutions. What we modern people admire about classical Greek sculptures—the revealing beauty of the white marble—is not what the Greeks had in mind. Originally, those marble statues were painted! Accustomed to the elegant monochrome, my eye is offended whenever I see a “fully restored” Greek figure. To my eye, with paint, they look garish and cheap.

My favorite era of antiques is Arts and Crafts—sometimes known as Mission. This artistic movement was a backlash against the frippery and soulless excess of industrialization. At its best, the lines were clean and simple, harkening back to a time of craftsmanship and honest labor. (At its worst it can be chunky and monolithic, crude for crude’s sake.) The philosophy behind Arts & Crafts reflected the relationship between the materials and the craftsman, showing each to its best potential. Of course, once popular, its designs were copied and manufactured, en masse, by American factories. Savvy manufacturers, like the Stickley brothers, created a design cult and a “buy in” mentality for their lines of cottage-style furnishings. The success of the movement’s philosophy, and marketing, soon made it another passing fad. By the start of The Great War, the style was already fading. Its American heyday was between 1905 and 1915.

I like the furniture of that era, featuring rich woods, quarter-sawn oak or aged natural cherry. Like many antiques, there’s additional caché for a piece when it has its original finish. Sometimes, that’s an original “fumed” finish—and I laugh. What we see today in those fumed finishes, often dry feeling and nearly black in color, looks nothing like it did when it came from the factory. They were ammonia based “lusters”—added after the standard wood finish, a process that created an iridescent color—almost a glow, in pastel tones. But, the factories knew that the fuming was ephemeral. It didn’t last. In fact, the fuming actually degraded the wood. So current antique emphasis on an “original fumed finish” puts a premium on what was really a failed experiment from the start. It’s not unlike the Greek statues—completely different in their own time. I’ll sand and refinish a fumed surface—regardless of the premium (breaking my own first rule.) I once sold a chair to an appellate judge who wanted a blond mission rocking chair, specifically so that he could experiment with fumed finishes. Now, that’s a purist. I pale by comparison.

Recently I found a lovely little “sewing rocker” on craigslist. From the picture, it had nice lines, but was nearly black. I figured I could refinish it, so long as it was solid and the joints tight. At thirty-five bucks, it was worth the effort, especially since I need a small chair for the downstairs bedroom. In person, it was just as dark, but it didn’t have the dry feeling of a fumed finish that I’d expected. I bought it. Once home, we found a faded label—Otsego Chair Company. A quick trip to the internet told us that Otsego was a Michigan company that closed in 1915. So our little rocker is at least one hundred years old.

With winter slowing us down outdoors, this is a nice time for indoor projects. I’m still waiting for the rest of my banjo parts, so I pulled out the little chair. I wondered about the nonstandard color—near black. I decided to start with a thorough scrubbing with Murphy’s Oil Soap. What a shock. This piece was never fumed; it was just filthy!

Underneath all that grime was a lovely little chair with a slightly weathered, rich patina. I didn’t remove the original finish, but, in the interest of my second rule, I did cheat a bit and enhance it with a layer of penetrating stain. The oak is quarter-sawn and highly figured. That means that the wood was cut for structural stability—and to enhance the variation in the wood’s grain. Before adding stain—I hit the “rays” with a lighter, golden-oak stain, another cheat. That way, they resist the overall, darker stain, and emphasize the contrast in the natural oak grain. I think it came out nicely. A coat of beeswax polish and it will be ready to put back into service.

 

 

 

 

Getting Mike: Part Three

A.V. Walters

Mike sign

We are all, each of us, a bundle of talents and deficits. My sweet Rick would be the first to agree; he is continually amazed that a highly functional, over-educated adult, like me, cannot tell left from right, or measure anything with accuracy. The trick is, that for most of us, we focus on the talents we possess.

We completely fail at this when the object of our attention becomes a diagnosis, and not a person. A diagnosis can be an opportunity, or an excuse, depending upon how one wields it. In essence, a diagnosis regarding mental capacity gives us information about the nature (and maybe cause) of a deficit. It’s what we do with that information that matters.

A couple of decades ago, I worked as a coordinator for an Adult Literacy Program. We banged our heads against this very phenomenon, repeatedly. Students and tutors would blame their failures on learning disabilities diagnosed when the students were children, instead of looking for the work-around. Despite the educational failures of the past, we found that many of our students were highly motivated and, with individualized instructions, were able progress beyond everyone’s expectations. All too often, the diagnosis of a learning disability had quickly become the operative reality—an excuse for failure instead of a challenge for success.

I have mentioned in this series that my Uncle Mike was shortchanged by the educational system. He had speech impediments that, unrecognized and unaddressed, led teachers to believe that he was language impaired and uneducable. A second chance in his late teens gave him speech therapy—and language. Not that Mike doesn’t have deficits but, armed with language, he presented a whole new package. Mike moved away before I was an adult, so I didn’t have much opportunity to get to know the “new” Mike, the one who could talk, until many years later.

Mike is highly literate. (His keen vision and ability to quickly read signs from a distance were a godsend while traveling with him, across the country.) He reads newspapers and follows current events. He is just as opinionated and informed as the rest of the family—which is saying a lot. He is funny and, in particular, gets situational humor. He has a great memory. But, because his speech is not perfect, many expect him to exhibit lower levels of performance. Mike hides behind these low expectations and, even if it means that he’s misjudged, never puts himself in a position where he will disappoint. Surely, sometimes he fails to “connect the dots,” but I never know if it’s capacity, or training. Mike has spent a lifetime fulfilling his diagnoses.

Not that there aren’t deficits. He has great difficulty measuring the motivations of others. Perhaps an early life without language meant that he could hide behind my grandmother’s skirts, and let her do the coping for him. This is especially true when, all too often, in his human interactions he was the victim of bullying and abuse. He doesn’t get arithmetic at all—and is at a total loss with budgeting and money. Beyond that, I’ve decided to judge Mike’s skills by first-hand experience, rather than by maligned expectations.

A decade ago Mike and I worked together to set him up in his first apartment. He was thrilled with it, with its humble furnishings and independence. We bought him a modular desk, (IKEA style) that required assembly. I took the lead—never pausing to read the directions. Mike and I chatted as I worked. About half way through, Mike expressed his reservations, “Alta, I don’t think that will work.” I was tempted to press on, but Mike got up off the couch and showed me that part of my assembly was backwards! (Did I mention that spatial skills are not my strong suit?) We both laughed so hard, we cried, and then finished the project, together.

Similarly, as we approached the end of our travels, I took a back road shortcut, up a steep hill in Hancock. It’s a winding road—I know it well and I took it at a good clip. We were nearly to the top when Mike cautiously inquired, “Is this a one-way street?” It was, and he was right to question what would have been reckless in two-way traffic. Mike gets it. We have to do a better job of “getting” Mike.

The point is, Mike has a far greater understanding about what goes on around him than we give him credit for. His homecoming can be a new beginning, for all of us. We can plan for successes, instead of failures, while providing safe opportunities for success. There are many wonderful possibilities here. Mike is a little intimidated by his return to real winters—but once his health is recovered, I think he will enjoy snow and season. Already, he is recounting childhood memories of winter in a favorable light.

There are decided advantages to small town living. My hometown, Copper Harbor, has about one hundred, year-round residents. Already, I am impressed with the welcome. Family members and friends are pulling together to outfit Mike with clothing and necessities for winter living. All of us are making plans for fun and community engagement as soon as Mike is on his feet. This is a seasonal town, if he wants, there are opportunities for work in the summer. My sister told the owners of a local resort that Mike was coming, and when we rolled into town, he was welcomed home, on their marquis! It brought tears to my eyes, and a ready smile to Mike’s face. Finally, we know that he is safe and loved. Finally, Mike has come home.

 

 

 

 

Wrapping up the Season

A.V. Walters

 

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Post bucket

We’ve had nearly an extra month of fall. Tomorrow, though, temperatures are expected to tumble down to seasonal norms. We’ve been rushing around to take advantage of the extended season and to get a jump on spring, next year.

We garden in buckets. It’s habit, from California, where it solved some of our irrigation issues. It also kept the gophers out of the vegetables. We’ve kept it up here in Michigan for some of the same reasons–water, critters, and because our soils need a lot of work. The buckets let us amend most intensely where the plants will live. Before the next season, we pull the buckets and empty the amended soil and leftover roots back into the soil. It could wait until spring, but we had the warm weather, so I did it this week. It will make it easier to spread amendment over the whole garden area in the spring, but we’ll probably stick with the buckets for a few seasons yet. It is more work–but promises better harvests until we can get the garden’s soil into better shape.

It was also time to attend to the fruit trees. They needed an end-of-season weeding, and it was time to wrap their trunks before winter. There are two main reasons for wrapping the trunks of fruit trees. It prevents sun scalding. Winter sun can warm the trunk–expanding the bark and the moist tissues below–on the sunny side. The temperature differential can split the bark, endangering the tree. By wrapping the trunk with light colored material, you reflect the sun’s heat away. The other reason to wrap is to dissuade mice and other critters who’d be inclined to nibble at the baby trees’ thin bark. Mice can easily girdle, and kill a young tree. I knew I’d arrived to the task just in time, when I saw that one of the apple tree’s lower trunk showed the early signs of nibbling! Now all of the fruit trees are wrapped and ready.

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A tidy wrap to protect the baby tree.

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Lined up in winter finery.

Along the way, I noted some successes. Before we planted the trees, located in the fenced garden area, we dug amendment in deep–very deep. In prepping their planting holes, we went down four to five feet deep and at least that far across. We wanted to give them a good start, and since our soils are poor, it was our best chance to add nutrients to the soil for the trees’ formative years. It has already paid off. Because we were attacked early by deer, the garden orchard trees had both the fence and individual tree cages for protection. In spite of having been seriously nibbled by deer, the apple, plum and pear trees have all more than doubled in size. They’ve outgrown the cages! They look more like 3rd or 4th year trees than 1st season trees. We may even see apples and pears next year.

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The cherry trees–grown outside the garden fence–didn’t get as much care. First, they’re all cherry trees. This is cherry tree country. One of the pioneer plants in our sandy soils is the American Black Cherry. I didn’t think that the cherries would require as much soil amendment. I only dug the amendment in to a depth of 18 to 24 inches. I also thought that cherry trees would be safe from the deer. They’re bitter! No such luck. We must have voracious deer. They munched on the cherries, too. Immediately after, we gave them cages, too. But while the others have recovered and really grown, the cherries have recovered, but stayed smaller. For future plantings, we’ll keep the deep-amendment program.

It makes me wonder if we should dig and replant the cherry trees. It’s a lot of stress on a little stick of a tree. I’m sure we’ll debate it all winter. More likely, I’ll be researching organic methods of fertilizing–not as good as a nice deep start, but we shall see. Any thoughts on that?

Cursed and Blessed, Both

A.V. Walters

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Oh, this project has tested us. It has been beset with delays, but I can’t complain. Each delay has brought hidden gifts. When last year we didn’t have time to put in a garden, we learned through the season that our initial garden spot was not a good place—not the best light and a bit too steep. That delay led to our current (now fenced) garden, which has great light and a gentle southern exposure, which will give us a little edge on spring. Likewise, our delays led to a reassessment on the best location for the septic system.

Some of our delays have had an even longer fuse—and, perhaps, an even better payoff.

We selected the log cabin because we thought it would go up quick. In the process, the guy selling it wanted to also push the “upgrades,” cedar logs instead of pine, the rustic railings and fancy split-log staircase. Mostly we were skeptical. Cedar, though, that seemed smart—cedar resists insect damage, much like the old growth redwood in California. Cedar fence posts last forever. So, when Bob told us that, unlike the pine, cedar logs were dimensionally stable, we listened. The railings and stairs were expensive and, well…ugly, falling into that category of over-rustic, or simply rustic for rustic’s sake. On those, we passed.

“Just how stable?” Rick pressed for answers. Rick had never built with logs, and he was concerned about shrinkage. Log home packages are often sold with adjustment jacks—big, cumbersome screw assemblies that allow you to tweak the non-log support members to keep the upper floors level (and to keep the log walls from spreading under weight.) Our pioneer forebears didn’t have such gizmos and their simple homes were notoriously caddywhompus. In response, Bob said that the shrinkage in their cedar logs was virtually “un-measurable!” Ever logical, Rick pressed further, “If the cedar logs are that stable, why do we need the complicated jack assemblies?”

We should have listened closer to Bob’s response. He said, “You don’t have to have them.”

When the kit was delivered, there were no jacks. I asked about it—and Bob told me that Rick didn’t want them. Hmmm. I shrugged. The kit installers (“stackers”—our very own Flanagin Brothers, though we didn’t know it yet) asked about the jacks—and we told them that Bob had told us that we didn’t need them with the cedar. They shrugged and said, “We’ve never done a log kit without them, but okay…”

Our cabin survived the winter, without any appreciable shrinkage. Rick built out the interior walls and the upper decking—then we wrapped and covered the whole thing until spring. The great unveiling revealed what we’d been led to expect—no real shrinkage.

When the Flanagins arrived to do the roof they mentioned the jacks (again) and we showed them our absence of shrinkage. We reiterated what the seller, Bob, had said. They shook their heads and shrugged (again). Then the roof went on.

The combined additional weight (from the roof) and exposure (now that it was unwrapped) resulted in what the Flanagins had expected all along. Accelerated shrinkage. They measured the growing gaps at the exposed ends and predicted a total of 2 to 2 ½ inches of drop. That meant that our center, load-bearing wall (and thus the upstairs floor above) would end up that much higher than the exterior walls and floors—a veritable roller coaster of an upstairs floor, and potential buckled log walls. Not only that, but the extent of this movement endangers many other building systems—doors and windows, plumbing, wiring and ducting. Until this is resolved (either fixed, or until all the shrinkage is finished) one cannot continue the construction without risking future system failures.

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There is always shrinkage and warping in wood construction. We get that. We are not perfectionists. But, even before all the expected shrinkage has occurred, the end result in our kiln-dried cedar logs is not “immeasurable.” The only word that I know to describe what happened here, is fraud.

A retrofit is never as easy as doing something right the first time. It is beyond our abilities. So we’ve hired the Flanagins back again—to save us yet again. We had to wait again, for a window in their schedule, but we are blessed. This week they’ve re-supported our upper floor with temporary piers, cut out parts of the load-bearing walls, and installed the jacks. All of Rick’s interior framing will have to come out, or be cut shorter, to make way for the downward shrinkage. One step forward, two steps back.

As soon as they finish we can really get going on finishing our home. It’s been trying, but our enthusiasm for the finish hasn’t waned. The question that hangs in the air is whether we “do something about it.” We feel that we’ve been saved from a bad outcome by the Flanagins (again). Solution in hand, we’re moving forward. But, are we rewarding bad behavior? Do we need to confront Bob with his misrepresentations? I, of course, am wracking my brain for what advantage was gained, by Bob…the proverbial why of it. I am chronically that third-grade kid, jaw dropped, because people are breaking the rules. What was he thinking?

It’s not that we lack the skills to take Bob to task on this. I can certainly go there, if not for us, maybe to teach him a lesson for others. Rick shakes his head—he doesn’t believe people like that ever learn lessons, “It’s just what they do.” They’ll always push the envelope, even if just for sport. With great relief, the home project moves forward and the past is there on our shoulders. We’re wrestling with it

And, there, the solution nearly done.

And, there, the solution nearly done.